As gamers we usually have various options more or less when it comes to what we want to play. While the originality found in certain things can be suspect, we still can partake in an action shoot-em-up, a 3rd person action-platformer, or even a sim based racing game if our heart desires such a thing. There are genres in gaming that will never go away but one whose popularity or at least reach has waned in certain years is the shmup genre.
Once a cornerstone of gaming thanks to titles such as Gradius, shmup games have become a niche thing in the industry and especially amongst gamers reared on Call of Duty. The shmup genre continues to live on in games released via digital distribution such as Deathsmiles, but it’s rare that we see a studio take a risk and create an original shmup experience that strives to deliver immersive 3D visuals. Well one such studio that is taking such a risk is Zanrai Interactive, the studio behind the upcoming PC bound shmup game Heaven Variant.
A throwback to classic shmup games, Heaven Variant ups the ante by delivering full 3D visuals, fast gameplay, and environments that are far more interactive than what we’ve seen before. Influenced by games such as Einhander, Heaven Variant isn’t a copycat game by any means as it’s trying to provide shmup fans an original experience they can enjoy while providing enough action to appeal to those who didn’t sink twelve hours into perfecting Ikaruga.
Zanrai Interactive’s Jason Koohi spared some time from his busy schedule to chat with Shogun Gamer about Heaven Variant and what gamers can expect from the title.
Ian Fisher: Zanrai Interactive is stepping up to the plate with Heaven Variant to provide a highly stylized and action packed shmup experience that gamers haven’t seen for quite some time within the genre. So with that said can you talk a bit about the origins of Zanrai Interactive along with how the concept for Heaven Variant came to be?
Jason Koohi: Yeah, sure! My name is Jason Koohi, I'm the founder and director of the team. I started the team a few months after I graduated from college. I figured my newly found freedom would provide me at least a shot to try and make a commercial game. I'd been dabbling in game design for years, but after weighing a few of my options and talking to some people in the know I took the plunge. I contacted Simon Inch, our team's programmer and then then I brought aboard our 3D modeler John Etheridge a few months later. I registered the company and that was that! I was friends with both of these guys during our academic careers at the University of Texas at Dallas, so I feel like our team is pretty close in that regard.
The idea for Heaven Variant really came from an experiment of mine making games on Game Maker and Scirra Construct, well before I started the company. I made a few simple shoot 'em ups with my own music and art. I fooled around with it enough and figured, “Hey, if I got a good team together I bet we could actually sell something like this.” Once we sunk our teeth into the UDK, we were able to accomplish a lot of cool stuff. Simon is a genius at the programming he's done. John handles all of the 3D art and helps me out with concepting out enemies and environments. I handle most everything else, the bulk of the texturing, the music and audio, level design, concepts, particle systems, and the story stuff. We work together and make decisions based on what we can accomplish with this small team. If we have the capability to do something with our resources, then we will, and that will push Heaven Variant into the current state of development that it’s in currently.
Ian: What would you say are the main goals and motivations you and the rest of the development team have for Heaven Variant? Is there a particular element you really want to push within the game such as having action that feels more pronounced or do you just want to help reinvigorate the shmup genre to the glory days that it previously had?
Jason: I know a lot of times people in the shmup community look at shoot 'em up fans as a brotherhood or a club. I know there are a lot of passionate fans of the long forgotten genre. Our team really just wants to make a fun game. We looked at things in shoot 'em ups that we liked and things that we didn't like, and we're trying to our best to create a game that functions on the classic design from yesterday while keeping in mind the current climate with the way games are design today.
We looked at games like Einhander and Thunder Force especially as games that did things we liked. We loved how Einhander used a gun switching function, and we loved the intense style and aesthetics of Thunder Force. And we've tried to incorporate these aspects into something tangible just with today's technology. It scares me to think about attempting to reinvigorate the shmup genre. There have been great games coming out recently, but I do feel like Einhander especially touched on something that was never really explored by other games right as the genre went into decline in the late 1990s. A lot of the games started to cater to only the hardcore audience that remained which is why I feel bullethell games are what I think most people of instantly think of when we mention the term “shoot 'em up.” We're not trying to overwhelm the player with bullets (at least all the time).
We want to focus more on shooting things down as opposed to dodging, and if we can add some kind of context for that to make it emotionally engaging and, most importantly, fun, I think our entire team will come away from this viewing it as a success. We honestly just want to make a gameplay experience that people enjoy and remember.
Ian: No matter how long they are all shmup games have traditionally featured a story for better or worse as some can be deep such as the tale told in Sine Mora while others are thinner than paper. What can gamers expect from the narrative of Heaven Variant? Will the universe of the game be deep and filled with cutscenes or will it follow a similar outline to a classic arcade inspired shmup experience?
Jason: We definitely have a story, and we'll probably have a few cutscenes spattered throughout, although I'd like to try and keep most storytelling told in game. I'm trying to determine how deep that story is going to get as I test things. One challenge we face is keeping the focused action on screen while relaying information in a way that doesn't overwhelm the player with information. That's a sure way to make sure no one focuses on anything, and its something I'm watching very closely. Balancing out the story and gameplay is a task in itself, but I think we've got a good grasp on it at this point.
It's no RPG by any means, but compared to the minor or minimalist stories most arcade shooters tend to have, we're definitely trying to be cinematic in the way we tell the story. And then we can always relay world information by injecting it into the world, and letting background images tell some of the story without explicitly stating it. Even in our very old first level video from February we had a lot of advertisements in the back that mention dealing with people on Earth and the subtle superiority complex those in space seem to have when dealing with them. This difference in nationality and political ideology ties into some of the story's subtext, but at its core we want to make sure the story doesn't hinder the fun part: blowing stuff up.
Ian: Heaven Variant sports a rather unique art style that melds futuristic elements with an anime style, resulting in a game that looks sharp and rather original. How has it been like to design the world of Heaven Variant and try to put your unique stamp on things considering the shmup genre has already featured an extensive range of styles ranging from anime, steampunk, heightened reality, and all out fantasy? And in general has there been one particular game or existing project that has inspired you and the team the most to make Heaven Variant as good as it looks now?
Jason: You think it’s unique? I was worried people would think it would look very derivative! Haha. We really just looked at the TV shows and movies we loved and moved forward. I'd love to say we have a thought out design, but we end up tweaking all the stages for aesthetics once we have an early framework ready for the level. The first level for instance in our February video looks similar but very different today, and it’s just part of our tweaking process. I suppose it stems from the small team aspect. Sometimes I'll look at the level and say to myself “this needs to change” and we change it suddenly.
As far as style goes, we knew we liked old mecha TV shows, and I knew I wanted there to be a very retro 80s and early 90s feel to some of the look (as a nod to the genre's golden age). When I drew up the character art, they just didn't look right as western characters. This is Japanese genre, and if we didn't have characters with an anime aesthetic, it just looked out of place. We also wanted to have all the characters as adults. I occasionally get frustrated emails asking why our characters aren't young girls, and stylistically (and as a homage to older games) this was just something we were trying to avoid. Stylistically, we're looking at military science fiction a lot.
Ian: For ages the shmup genre has been ruled by the same core gameplay formulas of players moving their ship either on the X or Y planes and only being able to shoot forward or in a few rare cases behind them. In Heaven Variant Zanrai Interactive is doing something different by giving the game a twin-stick shooter inspired edge by allowing gamers to have complete freedom of where to aim and shoot. Can you talk a bit about what made you want to go down that path and do you think that’s something that in turn could turn off core shmup players since it’s not “traditional” per say?
Jason: Well, we've actually just decided to remove that aspect of gameplay as a result of balancing issues. It probably was the right decision given the backlash we received when we put out our first video. Basically, secondary weapons attach to a “weapon axle” on the center of the ship. The player can then rotate this axle with similar angle switching system we've implemented. Each weapon has a different set of firing angles, some are limited to very specific angles, and the player can switch among them to fire in different directions. Some weapons will be strong, but only fire in one direction, while other weapons may be weaker and fire in more directions.
And again, this change was due to a balancing issue. Giving the player that much freedom to aim generally made all of the guns feel too powerful and we had to start resorting on enemy numbers to overwhelm the player, something that we wanted to avoid. This new gameplay system has fared much better with people that disliked our original system, which is nice, because we didn't want to exclude traditional players. Hopefully we've reached a good compromise here. Haha.
Ian: Beyond the aiming mechanics the game utilizes what sort of tone and direction are you going towards with the mission to mission combat? The public has only seen a small taste of gameplay footage so will the game have a more bullet hell inspired edge or will it be akin to the legendary game Einhander; essentially balancing fun but hectic gameplay with action that feels choreographed?
Jason: Heaven Variant will definitely not be a bullet hell game. We're aiming for a precise game that focuses on shooting enemies down as opposed to dodging. While dodging will clearly have a role, weaving through hundreds of on-screen bullets is a goal of ours. Combined with the cinematic aspects, I think people will dig the way we're presenting enemies and how they can dispatch them. It really harkens back to the days when arcades games were all about popping in a quarter and experiencing something exciting and engaging. I want the player to feel like a bad-ass!
Ian: One thing about Heaven Variant that I’m really excited about is that the world itself seems very alive and interactive as opposed to being a static background. With buildings in the background crumbling and vehicles on highways blowing up or popping up in the foreground there’s a very immersive feeling within the game. Has it been a main point during the development process to give the levels that pop as far as destruction and action moments are concerned? And will that feeling of immersion be a relatively common occurrence during most of the levels or only a select few?
Jason: Feeling like you’re in the world is a primary goal of ours. Since we're aiming for a more cinematic experience, we wanted the background to be something tangible that appears to actually have some kind of influence on the player. Our camera, enemies, and the 2D plane that the player's locked to will be moving around all of it. Enemies will pass through the environments, and things will happen in the background that directly affects the story.
We got a super positive response from the colony sim-sky BSOD-ing when the building collapsed in our earlier video, so we definitely want people that excited over other in-game events, and we have some really cool stuff we haven't shown yet that is crazy cool! Making sure things feel tangible is something we wanted to from the start, and this can even be seen with regard to the way enemies violently explode or crash. Making sure that the world is a real entity that things are interacting with and exploding into helps sell Heaven Variant's world.
Ian: Since the game is still in development and I’m sure there are certain things you want to keep secret for now, what can we expect from the boss encounters in the game? Boss battles are a huge element of all shmup games as they’re often complex, over-the-top, and in a few cases redefine how challenging something can be? Will Heaven Variant stay true to the shmup genres by featuring bosses that take up half the screen or is a different direction being taken in that aspect of the game?
Jason: Yes. We haven't shown any bosses, and it’s something we're keeping very close to our chest until we reveal how they work, but they'll be large and heavily armored. Our armor system allows us to attach armor wherever we really want. I can tell you that these enemies will have pieces all over them for you to destroy. We're really going to aim for a level of destruction on the bosses that I don't think many games have done, which I think will be really cool once people get a load of them and start tearing away at their defenses.
Ian: On the topic of levels how many can we expect to be in the finished game? Is the total number of stages something that’s pending on how the development process continues or is that pretty much locked?
Jason: The number of stages depends entirely on how development proceeds. These types of games are very short but intimate experiences. We'd like for there to be about an hour of gameplay (plus different difficulty levels), but this is something we're trying to determine as we progress. Again, it really has more to do with logistics and how long it takes. This is subject to changing significantly based on our progress.
Ian: What’s been the hardest thing to tackle or at least balance during the development of Heaven Variant? We all know that making a good game isn’t easy by any means, but has there been one particular element that you and the rest of the team have kind had to look long at to make sure it works and that everything in the game meshes with each other?
Jason: Dropping twin-sticks was a very tough decision, because it came down to deciding how we wanted the game to play. If we kept twin-stick it would have to be a Geometry Wars style game, which I didn't want to do. As far as actual development, our team is so small that while we can focus on things quickly and change stuff really fast, because we're all doing this as a side job, allocating enough time to get things done becomes tricky. Fortunately, our team has really good synergy to produce things quickly, which has been helpful to test if something works or not. And just getting assets in-game has been challenging because of the sheer number of stuff we need to have! And don't get me started on marketing, because that's one thing I continually struggle with! Getting the word out is almost the hardest part! Haha.
Ian: For various reasons the shmup genre has slowly declined over the years as far as core developers releasing new titles. Earlier this year we saw the genre get a slight bump thanks to the release of Sine Mora from Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture which appealed to both core and casual gamers. So as a lover of shmup games and someone that’s working on one why do you think the genre has declined the way it has and do you think there’s any chance of it picking up momentum in the future?
Jason: There are a host of reasons for this, but I believe this happened for really two main reasons. Firstly, mass appeal just changed with the advent 3D graphics and a larger base of casual players entered the market. I also believe that shoot 'em ups started to cater to an extremely specific crowd, and that made them too difficult and challenging for outsiders to enjoy. If you ask someone about a shmup they think about hundreds of bullets, and I think this further deters a lot of outsiders from even trying games, which in turn, deters developers from making them more.
Times have changed though. I think there's a market out there for 2D or 2.5D games, but big companies operate on market pressures. The cool thing is that with indie companies like us, we're willing to take risks on stuff we're passionate about, so I think that opens up a lot of cool opportunities for interesting games you might not get elsewhere. And hey, I can personally vouch that if we're successful enough, we'll keep making games like this, and I know a whole host of indie developers that agree with me, so support little known indies and help us out! You really can change the landscape of the game industry by voting with your wallet.
Ian: How has the small size of Zanrai Interactive affected the development of Heaven Variant? Is there more freedom in having a small dev team since it allows for concepts to be fine-tuned easier and essentially stay true to being an indie game or has it been difficult to put the time and resources into the game over the last few months?
Jason: Both of those points are very true, and it’s frustrating, because we can get the assets we want, it just takes time. If we had a larger team progress would be faster, but having to be slow, methodical, and meticulous about things on such a personal level is nice too because it allows to really scrutinize things and perfect them. Bigger teams with publishers don't have that luxury a lot, because they're on a super tight deadlines and budgets. We're working our asses off, but it’s extremely personal. Every asset, line of code, piece of music comes from our team's collective soul, so while we're hard on ourselves about the way things develop, it really makes sure that the experience isn't watered down.
Heaven Variant will be exactly what I want it to be, without publisher interference or people saying to change things. The freedom we have is valuable, because we can implement and do things that other larger developers have to do focus testing on to make a decision. If we decide we want a new robot enemy, we make it. If we want enemies to explode in a special way, we do it. We're doing all of this by the seat of our pants, so development is kind of crazy and wild sometimes which keeps us really engaged with our game's world.
Ian: The team at Zanrai Interactive has been diligently working on Heaven Variant for quite some time so when can we expect the game to be released? And can we perhaps see a Kickstarter campaign for the game so the project can receive that final push in the last stretch of development or is that something you’re hesitant to do?
Jason: We're still pinning down a release date. Kickstarter MIGHT happen if we get enough of a good response from people, so give us a ring on Twitter or Facebook to let us know you're interested! Special thanks to all the people that already have. Just like selling the game, Kickstarter comes down to marketing and getting our name out, if we can pull it off I'd consider a Kickstarter to help us on a few final costs I'll have to figure out how to pay. Haha.
Ian: At the end of the day what’s the one thing that you and the rest of the development team are the most proud of when looking at the total package that is Heaven Variant?
Jason: Well, I know I can't speak for the rest of the team, but for me personally, I love how tangible everything feels. Enemies blow up in special ways depending on the type of weapons you use, the world feels lived in even at this early point in development, and that's something I'm really proud of. And once we have the story and a context for the missions the player is on, I think it will really make playing the game fun and emotional.
We're going to do some cool stuff, and we're by no means reinventing the wheel, but we're doing things that the games industry hasn't in a while, so it’s really cool to see older ideas showing up with new technology. I promise Heaven Variant will have some really memorable moments in them, and while we're retaining that classic shooter vibe, the story and world will give meaning and context to the actions you perform in game, which I think will make the final experience really memorable!